Williams and Robinson

Giller Prize-winner Ian Williams (l.) will be in conversation with the U.S.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Marilyn Robinson on writing craft, themes and the power of fiction at the Vancouver Writers Fest. FULL STORY

Audrey Thomas by Alan Twigg

April 07th, 2008

AUDREY THOMAS was born in Binghamton, New York in 1935, this site She moved to BC after her marriage in 1958, dosage received her MA from UBC in 1963 and accompanied her husband to Ghana (1964-66), Upon returning to Vancouver she published her first short story collection, Ten Green Bottles (1967), followed by Ladies & Escorts (1977), Real Mothers(1981), Two in the Bush and Other Stories (1981) and Goodbye Harold, Good Luck (1986), Her mostly autobiographical novels and novellas are Mrs, Blood (1970), Munchmeyer (1971), Prospero on the Island (1971), Songs My Mother Taught Me (1973), Blown Figures (1974), Latakia (1979) and Intertidal Life (1984) for which she earned the first Ethel Wilson BC Book Prize, She lives on Galiano Island, where she has maintained a cabin since 1969. She was interviewed in 1986.

T: You once said the challenge of people’s lives is to organize one’s pain. Are you getting your pain more organized as you grow older? THOMAS: I’ve got my craft more organized, man! Mind you, I hope I don’t avoid painful situations. I hope that I will never avoid painful situations.

T: What about what Eleanor Wachtel says in Room Of One’s Own about the women in your books becoming saner and stronger?
THOMAS: Stronger, yes. But I hope they don’t become saner.

T: Surely the more you become “craftsman-like,” the more sanity creeps in. As you develop more objectivity.
THOMAS: Well, you know there’s a lovely phrase in one of Malcolm Lowry’s letters that I often relate to myself. It’s raining and everything is wrong. He’s really despondent. Maybe it’s after his cabin has burned down. He says, “But cheerfulness is always creeping in.” I’ve always loved that line. I feel that’s really the story of my life. I’m basically quite a cheerful person. I’m hardly a depressive at all. People are usually very surprised when they meet me. Somebody once told me at a conference, “I never realized that you were funny.”

T: Something I like about your work is what you call “quick language,” and in order to have “quick language” you can hardly be a depressive.
THOMAS: Yes. And I’m getting less and less of a depressive as I get older. As I realize more and more that everybody’s screwy. I’m not alone!

T: Speaking of not being alone you’ve described Faulkner’s fiction as “meticulous and outrageous at the same time.” It struck me that’s entirely appropriate for your writing, too.
THOMAS: Well, on that score I think I’ve learned a lot from the Australian novelist Patrick White. He’ll actually stop sentences in the middle, things like that. Tricks of emphasis. I didn’t know prose writers could do that until I started reading White. I thought poets were the only ones who were allowed to be as meticulous as that.

T: At the same time there’s an uninhibited, willing-to-be unconventional quality to your prose that is quite overt.
THOMAS: Well, the novel is essentially a middle-class form. I know I’m not unique in saying that. The novel has a tradition of received morality behind it. And if you no longer believe in that-or if you believe there isn’t any such collective morality in the society in which you live-then the novel is about breaking down all that. And the minute your novel is about breaking down, it’s not a novel anymore. It’s a book. I write books.

T: Looking at those “books,” George Bowering has decided there is a huge difference between your short stories and your novels.
THOMAS: And that interested me. He thought I was more experimental in my novels. But he hadn’t read Goodbye Harold, Good Luck. There are some very experimental stories in there.

T: For example, “The Man with Clam Eyes.” It reminded me a little bit of Leonard Cohen. Just the way you were loading up the language and purposely not explaining things.
THOMAS: You know who that story reminds me of? Browning. I grew up on Browning and the idea of the dramatic monologue.

T: Where did that title come from? “The Man with Clam Eyes?”
THOMAS: I sometimes read manuscripts for the Canada Council. In one of them there was this typo. It said this man had “clam eyes.” I was tired and I just thought, Jesus, what a strange image! It took me about an hour to realize it must have been a typo. Then David McFadden told me he has a poem that has a line “calm as a clam.” The whole dramatic monologue got started from that.

T: When you first lived in Scotland at age twenty-six, you said “the ghosts talk.” Given the changes, could you still get in tune with that romanticism in Scotland?
THOMAS: Oh, I think so. Especially in Orkney. I think the largest deposits of uranium in Britain are under the ground in Orkney. And yet they have this mythical landscape. It looks a lot like Saltspring Island. Very soft, rolling greenery. Meanwhile there’s uranium underneath. It was interesting to see the romanticism and the reality together. They had big signs saying Keep Our Island Uranium Free. There’s an uneasy truce with the government for the time being. Because it’s so easy to feel the mysticism of that place, there’s a lot of anger that they might think of mining the uranium. I happened to be there just after the cloud was passing from the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. The radiation levels were high. I was very aware of everything at stake there.

T: Chernobyl could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to the twentieth century.
THOMAS: I know what you mean. I don’t believe in God. But there was God’s warning to us all.

T: Yes. Everybody on earth was touched by that accident. It was wonderful because for the first time it all went from theoretical to practical overnight. We have to stop having such blind faith in technology.
THOMAS: There is no god in the machine. It’s madness. It’s as though we have this terrible desire to kill ourselves. A death wish. I wanted to start a Lysistrata society. Have you ever seen that play? The women refuse to sleep with the men until they stop waging war. That play is one of the great moral comedies. I’d like all the women of the world to become Lysistrata members. And they would not sleep with the men until disarmament takes place. We could put on the play everywhere. All across Canada on a particular day. Using the nuclear issue. Except you’d have too many women feeling it was unnatural.

T: You’d have to make it a Lysistrata Day. That way you’d get supportive publicity for it at first. All the male dominated media wouldn’t feel it was a real threat. They’d be willing to play it up. It would be good for ratings.
THOMAS: I’m really tempted to do it. It’s the women who’ve got to stop this. We’ve got to prove to the men that they’re the losers.

T: You’ve always participated in the Writers Union. You must welcome its new swing towards more political activism.
THOMAS: I do. I left the United States for political reasons. And for years I’ve been writing letters for Amnesty International. And I belong to PEN. So what am I doing sitting on my ass in Canada doing nothing politically? That’s how the Writers Union can be important. I would never run for government because then I wouldn’t write. I’m that selfish. I think intelligent women should run for politics and I think it’s awful that more of us don’t, but I’m not a good enough organizer. I’ve been on the executive of the Writers Union but I would never be the chairman. I’m not good at organization. I was good as a second vice-chairman, writing letters to Trudeau, sending telegrams, that sort of thing.

T: I know you’re sensitive to the criticism that as a feminist you are not fully and overtly a feminist writer.
THOMAS: Yes.

T: But I feel that if you stop in a story to analyse language, as you do, that can be as progressive as anything on a more didactic scale.
THOMAS: I agree. When I point out the word other in mother, to me that’s a political statement. Because mothers sometimes lose that sense that they are another person. Or the word harm in pharmacy. Because I think there are far too many drugs passed over the counter. Or the word over in lover. I certainly think there should be people who make direct political statements about inequities.

T: They’re called politicians.
THOMAS: Or polemicists. Or else non-fiction writers. But it’s just not my way of doing it. In a story, if I have a child turning a grapefruit around because she’s terribly confused about saying which parent she’s going to spend the next Christmas with, that’s an image that I hope will stay in people’s minds for when they’re considering splitting up.

T: Since you’ve brought that up, the story of yours that had the most resonance for me was the one about the boy in Greece…
THOMAS: Oh, do you like that? That’s one of my favourite stories.

T: I like it because it shows how children are instinctually sensitive and understanding of the adult sexual climate. They’re affected by it. And that’s such a huge area to be writing about.
THOMAS: The original impetus for that story came when my daughter Claire and I saw an incident on a Greek beach. A little boy found this octopus. He was very excited about it. He kept shouting, “I’m the one who found it. I’m the one who found it.” Meanwhile there was this real jerk who used to strut around the beach in his Panama hat and his tiny bikini briefs. And he was very hairy. And he took the octopus away from the boy. And he started playing very sexual games with it which the boy didn’t understand. The boy was a little afraid of the octopus but he was certainly afraid of this man. And that’s how the story started. Claire said, at the age of fifteen, “Hmmm, there’s a story in that.”

T: The boy’s shyness about sexuality is quite convincing.
THOMAS: He’s jealous of the blind man in the story because a blind man can look towards a woman with bare breasts and not feel embarrassed. I’d like to make a film out of that. There’s too many films about young girls going into puberty. And not enough about young boys.
I’ve always been interested in boys, maybe because I don’t have any. Boys are shy and modest, I think. Much more than girls. And they have reason to be. Because their bodies really betray them. So I made Edward, the boy in the story, around eleven or twelve. He’s precocious and yet he literally doesn’t know where to look. I thought this could make a good film if you keep it from the focus of Edward, who is always turning his head.

T: You mentioned to Eleanor Wachtel that you thought women have a lot of advantages over men…
THOMAS: Well, they can fake an orgasm for one thing. It was about ten years ago that that occurred to me. That puts men at a terrible disadvantage. I think women have more control over their bodies in some ways. That story about Edward was the hardest story to write. It took me two years. But I really love that story.

T: I thought it was the most complex. Whereas some of the other stories strike me as being simply slices of life, reproduced.
THOMAS: Vitamin-enriched slices of life.

T: Well, putting it that way, I was intrigued to see how you rewrote your story “May Day” and “enriched” it with a second version called “Mothering Sunday.” But both versions about those two women in a restaurant made me think it was you and Alice Munro getting together…
THOMAS: That’s very interesting. Alice and I do often have lunch together. And I do often write stories to her. Because we have the same kind of perverse sense of humour.

T: And you both have three daughters.
THOMAS: Yes. Two older, one younger.

T: And you both left husbands who fathered the daughters.
THOMAS: I didn’t leave my husband. He left me. There is a difference. I’m the person who hangs on to the very end of things.

T: Well, anyway, I see Alice Munro as being very eastern, and you as being very western.
THOMAS: Even though I come from the east.

T: Yes. But the reason you came out to the west…
THOMAS: …because I couldn’t stand the east! That’s true!

T: Whereas Alice Munro came out west for a while, and had to move back to the east.
THOMAS: It’s interesting you’ve thought of this. I often write stories and I think, “Oh, Alice would like this story.” I also think this is funny. Maybe she was there in that story in my head?

T: Now that you’re an established writer, can you expect your money situation to change?
THOMAS: There’s no such thing as an established writer until you’ve been put on a pedestal and you’re dead. THOMAS: Very few writers make that kind of money that puts them above the poverty line. That’s why most of them teach. If you decide that your first commitment is to your family and your writing, if you’re a single parent and you also write, and you think that that’s two full-time jobs right there, it’s very, very hard. I really don’t make money off my writing. But I know how to live minimally and I don’t mind. I quite like it. It’s a challenge. No, that’s not true. Actually I don’t like it. But it’s a challenge.

T: What was the first story you ever sold?
THOMAS: It was about the seven hundredth story I’d ever written. The Atlantic bought it. We were living in Africa at the time. They asked where they should send the cheque. It was a lot of money then. Five hundred dollars in 1965. I felt rather embarrassed to be discussing money so I wrote and said if we must speak about a sordid subject like money, don’t send it to Ghana or we’ll never get it. Put it in our Canadian bank account. I got a letter back almost immediately from Edward Weeks, the editor, saying, ‘Get something straight right at the beginning. There’s nothing sordid about money except the lack of it.”

T: That’s a good letter to keep.
THOMAS: I kept it for years. Then I moved and I lost it. I’ve always spent too much of my time adding up columns of figures. I never know what my income is from one month to the next. And I’m not one of those writers who is drawn to teaching.

T: I would think teaching would be a drain on creative energy.
THOMAS: It’s exhausting.

T: It’s exhausting, that is, if you do it with heart.
THOMAS: And if you’re not going to do it with any heart, you just become cynical.

T: Despite the struggles, you sound as if you’re very glad that you went ahead and had your children at a relatively young age.
THOMAS: Yes! We didn’t debate it. I think it’s harder for women now. Our kids are almost grown up and we’re still relatively young. It’s a wonderful feeling. I feel like my daughters are three of my very best friends. We all get on really well. I can be who I am rather than the mother.

T: Although you can still play the mother role when it’s required. ..
THOMAS: You’re not playing. You are it. They still call me Mum. I’m not crazy about children calling me by my first name. My children. Occasionally they call me Audrey. But I am their mother after all.

T: You’re out of synch.
THOMAS: I was walking down the street with a couple of guys from the New Edinburgh Review. One said something like, “Do you feel like an alien in Edinburgh?” And I said, “All my life I’ve felt like I’m not in the right town.” I feel comfortable being an alien. I feel comfortable on Galiano. But in terms of society, I’ve never felt right. I’ve usually been out of synch.

T: How do you mean?
THOMAS: My mother kept giving me Tony home permanents because she wanted me to have curly hair. Curly hair was “in.” Then it became straight hair. My hair was wavy. It won’t straighten. When I was a teenager, Marilyn Monroe boobs were in. And I was really skinny, if you can believe it. Then when people were really skinny, I was nursing my children. I had children when I was a graduate student. Now everybody’s having children it seems. I was never in fashion. But that sort of thing no longer bothers me.

T: Well, I think it’s quite fashionable to be the author of eleven worthwhile books.
THOMAS: So do I.

Essay Date: 1986

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